MRI's centralized resources drives materials research, education across all of Penn State

Eichfeld, Stapleton
Left: Chad Eichfeld, Nanofab director of operations, Right: Joshua Stapleton, director of MRI's Materials Characterization Lab (MCL). Credit: Penn State MRI

Doing materials research at the high level carried out by Penn State daily requires centralized facilities that serve all faculty, staff, and students across the entire University system from the Behrend Campus to the Brandywine Campus. Among the many benefits of this arrangement includes how such sharing of central facilities can lead to more contact and collaboration among researchers from different disciplines and units. Furthermore, the technical staff within these facilities provide invaluable expertise and support to the research community. 

Which is one of the reasons why an interdisciplinary institute like the Materials Research Institute (MRI) is so important. The centralized facilities give researchers across all of Penn State access to facilities that they might not ordinarily have access to. 

"It doesn't matter where you're coming from at Penn State to access these resources,” said Joshua Stapleton, director of MRI’s Materials Characterization Lab (MCL). “Which is something that I think the MCL takes pride in. We have a lot of good working relationships with the campuses, such as the Behrend College, the Dubois campus, the Altoona campus. It's in keeping with the exciting leadership and guidance of Penn State’s Office of the Senior Vice President of Research, where they have created this commonwealth campus research program.” 

Stapleton is referring to the Commonwealth Campuses Research Collaboration Development Program (CCRCDP). The goal of this program is to support collaborative research projects between Penn State Commonwealth Campus faculty and the faculty and research staff at the shared core facilities at the College of Medicine and at University Park interdisciplinary institutes. There are seven of these institutes, of which MRI is one. Part of their work is to raise awareness of the availability of facilities like the one Stapleton operates. 

"The CCRCDP program provides resources for commonwealth campus faculty to leverage university-wide research facilities like MCL” Stapleton said. “But the problem is a lot of Commonwealth faculty do not know about the resources. So how can they get access to it? And so that's kind of one of the drivers behind the program, to increase awareness like the MCL and put resources on the table for Commonwealth faculty.” 

As other stories in this edition of Focus on Materials have pointed out, characterization like what is done in the MCL is vital for materials research, and MCL’s work shows up in these other stories. Along with supporting faculty research, the MCL also plays a key role in education at Penn State. 

"MCL plays a key role in the applied characterization education of a very large number of students, and what I mean by applied is actually using tools to address problems,” Stapleton said. “This includes how you prepare the samples, how you make the measurement, how you optimize the measurement, how you start to process the data, etc., which is different from just learning about the fundamentals via a textbook.  Even though we are not currently running on any for-credit courses, MCL plays an important role in the hands-on education of students.”

Another MRI facility playing a key role in cross-campus interdisciplinary research at Penn State is the Nanofabrication Lab (Nanofab), which has world-class capabilities in the areas of deposition, etch, lithography, material modification, and characterization. The number of materials the facility can process is impressive - more than sixty-five materials can be deposited and over seventy materials can be dry etched. It can handle both common materials and non-standard materials and is available to researchers in academia and in industry.

One commonwealth campus that Nanofab works with is Penn State Hershey. According to Chad Eichfeld, Nanofab director of operations, this has led them to work on some very interesting projects.

“Some of their faculty have developed some unique medical sensors and we have worked with them on their prototypes,” Eichfeld said. “The projects have lost a little steam during the pandemic given people down there are a little busy with other focuses right now, but I assume it is going to keep going since they are working both with us and other faculty on campus pulling those prototypes together.”

Along with the sensors, Eichfeld said they have offered support on some other cutting-edge medical research at Penn State Hershey.

"We've also done other things like over the years with Penn State Hershey, things like prototypes of artificial livers,” Eichfeld said. “The connection we have with Penn State Hershey has enabled us to work on some real outside-thebox kind of projects.”

Like MCL, Nanofab also helps with student research, helping the next generation of materials researchers gain the hands-on experience that enhances their education.

"While classes are great, as is learning from a book or from a paper, coming into a lab and actually ‘kicking the tires’ of how to actually do something is much different," Eichfeld said. “It's like someone working on their car. You can read a manual on how to change a head gasket, but when you get in there and do it, it's a much different job than what the book tells you. And it's the same for students here in Nanofab.”

Eichfeld said students from across the Penn State system encounter and learn to solve real problems in processing materials that they will encounter in doing research during their career. This is because often, they are doing work that has never been done before, so there is no manual to read.

"No matter what, you're going to encounter problems when you do something somebody has never done before,” Eichfeld said. “There's going to be problems and it's just about figuring out the source and making those connections on how you're going to solve that problem.”

“When a student starts, they come in green and they might not even know what a fab is, never set foot in one, but when they come out, they could probably be a tool owner in a fab,” Eichfeld added.

Whether it is a graduate student learning the ropes or a faculty researcher at another Penn State campus in need of stateof- the-art equipment for an experiment, Stapleton said that across MRI, the work they do is about being discipline agnostic. This means supporting research from different disciplines and helping Penn State faculty and students find the right tools to solve complex research problems.

"Academia can be great at creating silos, not interfacing with each other, and when that happens science loses out,” Stapleton said. “We don’t think like that, we think, okay, you got a microscale structure question. You got a nanoscale chemistry question. How can we help, how can we help you find an answer to your research questions?

“We run a research facility where it does not matter what discipline you are studying, if we have the right tools to address your question we are here to help”